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Edwards starting big season Third-year QB must show he belongs

The answer is the same wherever you go in the Buffalo Bills' locker room.

What stands out about Trent Edwards heading into his third NFL season?

"Confidence," said offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.

"Confidence, for one," said receiver Lee Evans. "What you see now is just more confidence."

It is a make-or-break year for Edwards. Either his career takes a step forward this season or he loses his hold on one of the 32 precious starting quarterback gigs in the NFL.

On the eve of Monday's season opener in New England, Edwards has reason to believe he's in a position to succeed.

In terms of support, the addition of receiver Terrell Owens gives him more quality weapons than ever before. In terms of scheme, the Bills' no-huddle offense should be geared toward one of his best strengths -- quick decision-making. And with 23 career starts, he has enough experience to get the job done.

"I think that the position I am in, with two years under my belt, with a lot of say in the way this offense goes, a lot of the reason this offense is going to be where it needs to be is because of me," Edwards said this week. "I think that's a great opportunity for me."

The other huge factor boosting Edwards' psyche is he's happy about the change in direction that occurred when Turk Schonert was fired nine days ago and Van Pelt took his place.

Edwards is too smart, too tactful, too diplomatic to come out and say it.

But it seems clear that the chemistry between Schonert and Edwards was not ideal, and Edwards was not responding well enough to Schonert's one-voice approach.

Consider Evans' take:

"I think Alex is feeding on that now," Evans said of Edwards' confidence. "He's letting him be who he is, and not trying to bog him down one way or another. Let him play. Let him be who he is, and just let him be a little bit more free. So what you see now is just more confidence."

Consider Edwards' take on what positive changes Van Pelt implemented this week:

"A lot of it had to do with the other coaches' input, and that's kind of what we need around here," Edwards said. "I feel like we have great coaches on this coaching staff, and all those guys are getting input, and all those guys Alex is listening to, including myself.

"So that's just going to make for a better game plan. I think that's what we have this week, and hopefully [that's what] we'll get in weeks to come."

Edwards does not project the swagger of a Jim Kelly. Few do. He does not have the brashness of J.P. Losman. (One could argue that's a good thing in terms of his relationship with teammates.) But make no mistake, Edwards is self-assured. He's comfortable in his skin. He's perceptive about his image. You won't see any hang-dog in Edwards if things go wrong.

"I hear people talk about issues of a lack of confidence with him," said Van Pelt. "I don't think that's the case at all. I think he understands and sees things a lot better than he did his first year and his second year. It's our job just to make him feel comfortable in there with what we give him."

"You have to have thick skin," Edwards said. "It's not a position for the weak of heart. You have to be able to trust your instincts and trust yourself."

How iron-clad is Edwards' confidence? We're about to find out.

Kelly had swagger off the field, and he also had it on the field after throwing interceptions. Edwards still has to prove it on the field.

Edwards has shown signs that he could become a quality NFL quarterback. He completed 65.5 percent of his passes last year with a passer rating of 85.4. Those totals ranked sixth and 17th, respectively, in the NFL. He had six games with a passer rating of better than 90.

At his best, he makes one think he could become a better version of Chad Pennington or a Brad Johnson (who won a Super Bowl). But he has had enough shaky outings -- like the Cleveland loss last year -- to leave open the prospect of his career arc following that of Jay Fiedler or Scott Mitchell.

Now is the time to find out. Presuming he gets enough pass protection -- which is a big if -- Edwards should be able to significantly boost the productivity of an offense that ranked 25th in yards last season.

"Our skill-position guys we have right now are the same guys I threw to last year, besides Terrell Owens, and I believe that helps our team out a lot," Edwards said. "I've been working with Derek Schouman quite awhile now, with Fred Jackson quite awhile now, with Lee and Josh [Reed] and Roscoe [Parrish].

"Now you bring Terrell into the mix and Shawn Nelson into the mix, I really feel comfortable with those guys, and I'm very excited with those weapons."

Is Edwards a talented enough playmaker to be a star?

His propensity to get the ball out of his hands quickly raises doubts among fans who think he throws short too much. Captain Checkdown?

The reality is the Bills likely are going to have to hurt teams underneath this season before they can exploit them in a big way downfield. Defensive coordinators are going to make the young Bills prove they can march 12 plays down the field without making a mistake.

"You definitely do have to be ready for that," Edwards said. "I think that's always been in the back of our minds since we brought Terrell in here. We're thinking to ourselves, we have a great receiver at X, and now we have a great receiver at Z. The [Bills'] most vulnerable area is in the middle. Those two guys outside are the most proven.

"On paper we've got to be able to run the ball. Chances are we're not going to get that big a chunk of yardage all the time. It's going to take 12 plays. We're going to have to prove that."

"As far as checkdowns go, we're going to make smart decisions with the quarterback," Van Pelt said. "You look historically, teams that throw interceptions usually don't make the playoffs. We'll definitely err on the side of checkdowns if it's what the defense is vulnerable to.

"If we have to get it in the hands of 23 [Marshawn Lynch] and 22 [Fred Jackson], if they're taking away the outside, then that's what we do."

When the long ball is there, Edwards must prove he can capitalize.

Improving Edwards' deep accuracy has been a point of emphasis for Van Pelt the past two seasons. While it wasn't evidenced in preseason, Edwards looked good throwing downfield in practice.

"I definitely think he's made great progress," Van Pelt said. "Now that we have two guys who can get downfield outside with similar speed, it helps him a lot. You're not throwing different types of balls. You're throwing a similar ball to both guys. He's improved a lot."

If he combined some big plays with his high-percentage accuracy, Edwards can solidify his position this season.

He knows it will be a defining season.

"I think I've realized that since my first game as a rookie my first year when I went in at New England after J.P. got hurt," Edwards said. "It's such a what have you done for me lately business. Nothing's proven. That's the nature of the business. . . . You've got to be tough."

***

Bills defensive tackle Spencer Johnson (thigh) practiced Saturday and is probable for Monday. Pats receiver Wes Welker (knee) is questionable and cornerback Shawn Springs (knee) is probable.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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